In Praise of Stepmothers, the Scapegoats of Fairy Tales

·10 min read
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty/Everett
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty/Everett

When it first became clear that my relationship with my now-spouse was serious, everyone I met used to ask me the same question: “Do you think you’ll have your own children?”

“Oh,” I would say with complete deadpan, “I don’t think his ex would take our baby every other week.” My partner’s ex-wife is wonderful, but it’s still quite amusing to imagine her assuming responsibility for his infant half the time. It’s one of my favorite cocktail party jokes. And it saves me from having stickier conversations about health issues or the emotional freight of blended families with those who think this is small talk.

I am, in other words, a stepmother: one of history’s domestic villains. Etymologically, the word comes from the Old English “astepan,” which means “to bereave or deprive.” Originally stepparents were those who married bereaved parents; their existence signifies not addition or supplementation, but rather loss. In Polish and Italian to treat someone in a “stepmotherly” way means to deal with them harshly. This is one reason that some use the phrase “bonus mom” instead (a phrase my eldest hates because it sounds like you’re not fully a parent). Personally, I like the French belle-mère (“beautiful mother,” also used for mothers-in-law) or Spanish madrasta (mother-star), but it’s not catching on at home. What’s striking is that in a world filled with nontraditional-families—open adoptions, non-binary parents, single parents, grandparent caretakers, poly-families, same-sex parents, and so on—we keep using a term that evokes deprivation and mistreatment.

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We start the propaganda campaign at bedtime: iterations of three of the classic Grimm fairy tales (and numerous non-favorites)—Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, and Snow White—revolve around the odious actions of a stepmother. Such stories are a cross-cultural phenomenon: in 1953 sociologist William Carlson Smith identified 345 variants of the Cinderella story alone. Sure, this is fantasy, but it has effects. As Visher and Visher put it, “Fairies do not exist, and witches do not exist, but stepmothers do exist, and therefore certain fairy tales are harmful rather than helpful to large segments of the population.”

The Brothers Grimm and Disney adaptations aside, there’s more than a little bit of literary and historical evidence to support the idea that stepmothers do bad things. The biblical matriarch Sarah was so jealous of the enslaved Hagar and Ishmael that she has Abraham cast them out to die. By the time of the emperor Augustus, the stepmother was figured so negatively in Roman society, that even the presence of a powerful stepmother—the Empress Livia, second wife of Augustus—did not dissuade writers from utilizing the trope. Virgil describes stepmothers as savage; Horace pictures them as unfeeling; and everyone hints that they conceal murderous intentions. The historian Tacitus writes that the animosity of the stepmother is self-explanatory. The stepmothers of Roman literature are odious and, as a result, malicious rumors swirled around their real-world counterparts.

Several ancient putative stepmothers allegedly struck agreements to have their stepsons killed pre-marriage. In a third-century B.C. story of the Egyptian Prince Setna, Setna’s future wife Tabubu insists that he murder his existing children before she will marry him. According to Sallust, Aurelia Orestilla only agreed to marry the Roman senator and would-be-revolutionary Catiline after he agreed to dispatch his adult son to the afterlife. As Gray-Fow has argued, these are unverifiable rumors and myths, but they were effective and “too attractive to give up.” A stock exercise in the education of Roman children was to have students deliver a speech in the voice of characters like “the stepmother.” Assignments like this, much like Disney movies, only cemented the notion that stepmothers had bad intentions.

Inheritance, power, and the allocation of resources clearly lie at the heart of many of these stories. Ambitious imperial stepmothers Livia and Octavia were suspected of committing murder in their attempts to advance the careers of their biological children. (With one possible exception—Fausta, the second wife of Constantine the Great—imperial stepmothers were not filled with murderous rage.) Cross-culturally, the underlying legal issues and questions of inheritance and favor are not trivial. The protagonist of the ancient Egyptian story of the Doomed Prince puts the situation bluntly: “My mother died, and my father took another wife, who came and gave birth, and she began to hate me, and I ran away from her.”

In other stories, especially those involving stepdaughters, jealousy seems to have been the prime motivator. The Queen in Snow White really struggles with aging and a younger “rival.” Even in mythology, goddesses like Juno and Phaedra bore hostility towards the illegitimate children of their immortal partners. Some have hypothesized that stepmothers see their stepchildren as rivals for the attention of the father. The Pentamerone, a 17th-century version of the Sleeping Beauty story by Giambattista Basile, is a case in point. In this version Beauty is assaulted by a king as she slept and gives birth to twins nine months later. The king’s wife is consumed with jealousy and gives orders that the infants be killed and made into a stew. As in other stories of cannibalistic stepmothers and mothers-in-law, her plans are thwarted by the cook, but jealousy simmers throughout the plot.

In the history of folklore, stepmothers are usually crafty killers. They utilize poison, the most feminized of weapons, to target their husbands and stepchildren. It is worth noting that poison is not only the domain of stepmothers, but from Medea onwards poison is consistently gendered. From Tacitus, to Snow White, to the venomous stepmother of Malory’s Arthurian legend, evil stepmothers are likened to witches and snakes. Case in point: when our youngest once overate so much that he later vomited—which sometimes happened—a former nanny accused me of deliberately making him sick. The nanny, who didn’t trust the “stepmother,” had a ready-made cultural script to fit her internal narrative.

This is not to say that history has no good stepmothers. Octavia, the sister of the emperor Augustus and fourth wife of Mark Antony, raised her stepchildren as her own even after Antony had abandoned her for Cleopatra. The 16th-century Polish princess Zofia Jagiellonka was able to foster positive relationships with her stepchildren and even served as an adviser to them. It helped, as Almut Bues has written, that “she bore no children” herself. Robert Coover attempted to challenge fairy-tale conventions in his postmodern 2004 parody Stepmother. More recent television shows like Phinneas and Ferb, Drake & Josh, and even Bridgeton have focused on more positive portrayals of stepmothers as loving parents. Yet somehow the power of these reassessments continues to be overwhelmed by fairy-tale caricatures.

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All this negativity conceals that, in practice, blended families have some demonstrable advantages. As a society we are being increasingly honest about the fact that parenting can be hard, exhausting, and (sometimes) mind-numbingly boring. If you have ever sat through three hours of sub-par entertainment at a holiday concert to watch your kid on stage for five minutes, then you know what I mean. Having built-in breaks and free childcare is an unbelievable gift. You never have to work out how to make your romantic relationship work alongside your co-parenting relationship, because you have regular time alone with you partner. Yes, you want to see your children more, but you can’t feel guilty about not spending time with them, because you don’t have that option. I regularly advise people to consider divorce as a parenting model: have kids with someone you care for and respect and then marry the love of your life. I’m joking, of course, but I’m also not. They say that it takes a village; so, if your nuclear family blows up, why not create one? Part-time parenting does not equate to part-time love.

I should admit that when it comes to stepparenting I have one very clear advantage. I met my own truly remarkable stepparents at the same age as the boys met me—4 and 6—and I cannot remember life without them. As a child, my madrastra, Marcia, was the kindest, wisest, and most emotionally careful adult in my world. She is to this day the first person I go to for advice and one of my closest friends. I’ll never forget that she spent all night sleeping in an uncomfortable chair in my dorm room on the day I found out my beloved biological mother was dying. I’m grateful for the many small gestures and pieces of advice that helped make me who I am. I have never doubted that I am twice loved and that created a world of possibility for me.

This does not mean that stepparenting isn’t hard. It’s a tightrope walk without the security net of legal rights. Every situation is different, and I hear a variety of stories, but generally, stepparenting often means being second best and, in some contexts, frankly irrelevant. There’s no “day” or clearly defined role for you. But respecting the boundaries of others and an absence of social status are surely not reasons to love less. Love, like good manners, doesn’t have to operate on a scarcity model.

People try to tell me that there is something different about a biological child (I find this a bit annoying. I cannot imagine how adoptive and other non-biological legal parents feel). Cherished friends say that it’s involuntarily different. Science is on their side: one study from the 1980s shows that stepmothers who reproduce with the father of their stepchildren are not as close to their stepchildren as they are to their biological children. Those with biological children report feeling less satisfied with being a stepmother.

I like to think that the “difference” is nothing as narcissistic and crassly medieval as bloodlines, but rather the intimacy and trust built by presence. It’s showing up for the banal day-to-day moments that separate being a parent from being a family friend. (Or, for that matter, being a good parent from being a transient or negligent one). It’s the thrill of being stuck in an elevator, the familiarity of eating dinner and breakfast together, the ritual of bedtime stories, the tedium of the third medical appointment in a week, and the elation that accompanies the after-school walk home that makes people family.

I do not think anyone could love any child more than I love the boys. But if I were to concede the point that there is something transcendent about becoming a biological parent, then it seems to me that it is a great deal like heroin. Hear me out here because I do not mean to be flippant. I have it on good authority that the first dose of heroin is the best feeling you could ever have. (Nothing will ever compare, which is exactly why it is so dangerous.) As a non-heroin user, however, I live in blissful ignorance. Heroin might be better, but I’ll never know, and I can get my kicks from cocaine and ecstasy, or, as I like to call them, Max and Luke.

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